The Grand Conversation

20 July 2008

Featuring Our Cognitive Surplus

One of the ironies of blogging is that in pursuit of the grand conversation, the epitome of Web 2.0 togetherness, writing often takes precedence over reading and the chance to comment on some-one else’s blog dwindles with each new post. Those of us who work professionally as writers and editors feel this the most, partly because we read so much in our line of work anyway, but also because a small distraction in a day can set a project back by hours. And if it’s not done by six o’clock, you just have to keep working into the night. Or on the weekend. So as I try to do from time to time I’m using this post to highlight a blog that I really should be commenting on, Greg Sadler’s new effort, Our Cognitive Surplus.

Many bloggers are sceptical about new blogs, wanting evidence of longevity before the initial burst of enthusiasm can be evaluated. But my opinion is that silence never encourages, and that enthusiasm grows with enthusiasm returned. Greg left a couple of very pertinent remarks here earlier in the week, on both my rudimentary (and yet to be tested!) comment policy and my recent consideration of Roman historiography. They struck me as intelligent and meant very much in the spirit of conversation, so I visited his blog to see what else he’s been ruminating about.

Greg writes from Canberra in Australia, and while his focus is by no means on the city, he does capture its essence in one brief burst – his comments on being accosted by evangelical Catholics in Civic had personal resonance for me, having lived thereabouts for six years. Canberra is very often a city of extreme and contradictory opinion, thrown about without much consideration for whether anyone is listening. Greg’s also perceptive in his assessment of the encounter, considering the importance of beliefs expressed even as he rues the lack of an internally functional paradigm within much religious debate. In other words, reason flies out the window all too often when dissent dares object to the received wisdom.

You might not agree with everything Greg writes, but that’s the whole point. He wants to start a conversation, and disagreement is inherent in any dialogue. So Greg, if you’re reading this, I will reply to your comments soon and I’m sure there’ll be much more to talk about. To everyone else who cares to converse, pay Our Cognitive Surplus a visit. It’s just beginning, but there should be a great deal more to come.


Abuse is Cheap

16 July 2008

Or, a Rudimentary Comment Policy

Although it seems so much like a cliché, to say abuse is cheap is the most satisfying response to irrational and irresponsible comments left on blogs. Thankfully, Greetings Earthlings has only ever attracted pertinent comments, many of which have made me think again about important issues. Some – especially my exchange with Patrick Lambe about knowledge management – still have me thinking. But today the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, received a ranting, possibly delusional comment about my wife and two close friends who have been working with me seeking justice for Vicky Flores and her family. So it’s time to reflect on invective, and think about what might pass for a comment policy here.

What makes someone rant at people who have given countless hours of time, significant amounts of money and sent themselves almost to exhaustion to help others? Jealousy could nail it, or derangement if the logic slips enough, but neither are particularly satisfying. Obviously the Internet offers convenient anonymity from which to fire barbs, although relatively few people realise just how simple it is to track down the IP address and thus location of a bitchy commenter. No, it’s not about ease of use. It’s got something do with quality.

Regardless of what else I could be accused, I pride myself in writing well, not only because I want people to read and agree, but also because I value ideas and their articulation. Not everyone sees things my way, but at least they can see what I’m getting at. Blog flamers, in contrast, really have no idea. Just as words strung out sequentially don’t necessarily constitute a sentence, a scattering of insults and wild presumptions are unlikely to comprise a comment.

As I mentioned earlier, abuse is cheap. Not only is it worth little in one sense of the word, but it’s also sleazy, both degrading of its context and demeaning for its perpetrators. And I intend to save abusive commenters from themselves.

So here comes what will pass for a comment policy on Greetings Earthlings. Any personal abuse of me or anyone else, including public figures, will be deleted. Attack my ideas or those of other commenters if you like. Attack the blog’s layout – criticise my choice of images if it pleases you – but I ask you to do so from a rational perspective.

After all, logic is everyone’s friend in this truly puzzling world.


A Question of Money

5 July 2008

Is the Allure of Remittances Fading?

? by Stéfan, with Creative Commons licence

Questioning orthodoxy is often the hardest, least rewarded task. Everyone hates a whiner, and even the most artful of dissenters rarely appreciate the value of their own kind. But only by pushing and prodding can we expand our understanding of the way things are, always with the aim of shifting them towards the way things should be. When J.K. Galbraith coined the term ‘conventional wisdom’ in the 1950s he did so in the belief that there was “a persistent and never-ending competition between what is right and what is merely acceptable”. He wanted to root out and analyse ideas that were popular only because they could be understood within a broad social consensus, regardless of their content. They were persistent because people built on them, using the same or similar methods to produce slightly different explanations.

I’ve written about money sent home by overseas workers to the Philippines before, but allow me now to consider recent comments by others to put the issue in perspective. When I attended the opening forum of the International Migrant Alliance in Hong Kong not long ago, the most credible of the speakers had an interesting tale to tell. Sonny Africa is an economist with the IBON foundation, a left-leaning think tank in the Philippines. He argued, very much against the conventional wisdom, that remittances might well be propping up individual households in the country, but there was no hard evidence that they were encouraging anything but low-level investment. Most importantly, he said that remittances were not beneficial to long-term economic growth.

Africa’s position sounds like sour grapes in a country that received a staggering US$17 billion in remittances last year, second only to vastly more populous China at $US25.7 billion. But other economists have been questioning remittances recently – not dismissing them, but asking whether their beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

YouNotSneaky, an economist blogger far more perceptive that the name suggests, has argued in much the same way as Africa that the benefits people think come from remittances are actually from the transfer of money within households. The overall economic benefit, he argues, comes not from the remittances themselves but from the entire process of labour migration. Reviewing the post at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen agrees that “the gains are to be found in the immigration itself, not the subsequent transfer. Beware double counting.”

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Getting Organised for Good

25 June 2008

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

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After the Event

30 May 2008

What Whispers Beyond the News?

Old New News, by ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceEvents are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?

Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.

Its Sandwich Time!!! By ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceBlogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.

It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.

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Risk and Redemption

28 May 2008

On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes

Disney Institute -- Steamboat Willie Says Take Risks, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons LicenceAll too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.

So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.

If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.

The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.

Lifekludger first idea, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceDave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.

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From Another Perspective

25 May 2008

The Benefit of Bifocal Thought

Exploring an Idea, by JJay, with reative Commons licenceIdeas are never stagnant – they move, they change, they make way for other, better, more enduring ideas. In every mode of thought, circumstance dictates just what remains useful and the extent to which inquisition should eventually reach. But we never think without a framework; we’re always bound by a directive, a whispered voice of reason, in one way or another. Writing in The Scientist recently, Steven Wiley pointed out the inherent flaw in presuming that research can be conducted without a theoretical base, that the information ‘out-there’ can somehow speak for itself. Hypotheses, he argued – whether explicit or not – provide a “level of simplification” at which meaning can be usefully extracted from data.

We need similar guides to the broad sweep of thought, directions in which to look for everyday answers in an ever-puzzling world. I wrote recently about the flexibility of ideology, how it remains as a sort of uber-hypothesis when circumstances change. Marxism dies, you might say, but the quest for social justice remains. But now I want to ask a more pointed question, given the passing of doctrines, given just how fast lives can reconfigure themselves without much effort from those concerned (think of a death in the family, or the community, and its repercussions). How can we know that our way of thinking is sufficiently developed, appropriately fine-tuned, to help others?

As with many of the questions I’ve been asking here recently, I only have a partial, tentative answer. It springs from my struggle to balance Greetings Earthlings! as a blog of sometimes wayward ideas through which I’ve mixed a heavy element of activism and A Death in Hong Kong, a blog of activism in which ideas are very carefully administered. This blog is my own, I can write what I like; the other belongs to a group, on behalf of which I write. Quite often the content is similar or the same – most of my recent writing has been a reaction, in one way or another, to Vicky Flores’ death here in Hong Kong.

Empathy, by Irina Souiki, with Creative Commons licenceYou could point to that preoccupation as my guide, the thesis to which I’ve been writing on both blogs, the hypothesis for more developed thought. But a greater concern, a more specific concern, has been to see things from a different perspective.

To explain, allow me a short detour. A recent edition of the Economist provided an interesting overview of a study conducted in America that sought to show how a “win-win” situation could best be obtained from a two-party negotiation. Now, negotiations aren’t terribly renowned for providing happy endings – one party more often dominates, and benefits. But Adam Galinsky presumed that if both parties were to benefit, a slight change of analytical direction was necessary. Instead of considering empathy and the ability to take another person’s perspective as one and the same thing, Galinsky separated them.

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